Measure C: County Disposable Cup Tax explained

A plastic cup near San Lorenzo Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As Santa Cruz County follows the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville in levying a new single-use cup charge, voters get to decide how to divvy up the estimated $700,000 in new revenue.

If you’ve been to a coffee shop in the cities of Santa Cruz or Watsonville within the past few months, you might have noticed that the price of your latte is higher than you’re used to. Now, that same upcharge takes effect on July 1 in all unincorporated parts of the county.

It’s a change that was supposed to take place in the early months of 2020.

As approved by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors — led by 2nd District Supervisor Zach Friend — the ordinance requiring businesses to charge 25 cents for single-use disposable cups was initially scheduled to begin July 2020. COVID-19 pushed the board to delay that new charge as many food service businesses shifted to a takeout-only model.

Now, with the acute phase of the pandemic appearing to somewhat wane and dine-in options at restaurants and cafés having largely returned, customers in unincorporated areas of the county will begin paying the fee on July 1.

Voters won’t be deciding on levying the tax, but on how the money raised by the new tax — estimated at $700,000 in the county — will be spent.

A “yes” vote will authorize the county to collect half of the 25-cent cup fee (12.5 cents), with the other half going back to the taxed business. The extra revenue would go into the county’s general fund, and the board of supervisors will determine where to allocate the money.

A “no” vote would prevent the county from collecting the 12.5 cents, allowing the entire 25-cent cup charge to go back into the taxed business.

City ordinances are already in effect in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

In January, a 10-cent disposable cup fee began in Watsonville, with the 25-cent disposable cup fee following in the city of Santa Cruz. Currently, businesses retain all of the money from the fees.

What does the measure do?

The measure, proposed and unanimously adopted by the board of supervisors, is designed to provide additional funds for environmental programs. However, since the money will go to the general fund, the board will ultimately determine how the generated revenue is used should the measure pass.

What money is involved?

The proposed tax would add about $700,000 to the general fund, which is currently estimated to be $680.7 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Who supports the measure?

Measure C proponents believe it will protect the ocean and marine life by addressing the use of pollutants while supporting essential services that promote the well-being of the community. These include clean water preservation, trash and litter cleanup, and beach, park and open space maintenance.

Friend — who advocated for the measure — wants to ensure that the fee is put to good use.

“In my experience, most people already think that fees on things like plastic bags and cups go towards some sort of dedicated environmental cleanup program, but they don’t as it currently stands,” he said. “Right now, the entire 25-cent collected fee goes back to the business.”

Friend added that this tax will nail down additional funding for cleanup costs.

“I pushed for this because at the end of the day, there are still significant costs, not just to the environment, but to the county in cleanup associated with single-use plastics and disposable cups,” he said. “This will allow for an infusion of money to go for cleanup at creeks, rivers, the ocean, and even alongside roads in a way that doesn’t currently exist.”

Friend also said that the half retained by the businesses will allow them to cover any extra cost associated with the fee.

“In conversations with local businesses, and particularly small businesses, they acknowledged that there is an additional cost burden on them for charging the fee and collecting it,” he said. “So, splitting it 50/50 ensures that their costs are more than covered, but that there’s still a decent yearly amount of money coming towards the cleanup that these products unquestionably create in our community.”

Who is against the measure?

There is no filed argument against Measure C.